"It’s unbelievable how much food we store up during the holidays," said Donn VanSchelven, the founder of the Rockton Pantry. "We have cases of green beans stacked everywhere over here."
With the new year ahead, VanSchelven will continue to distribute the now overflowing coffers of the pantry, but he is quick to mention that the surplus won’t last long.
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At the rate of $80 worth of groceries for 50-plus families a week, keeping well stocked is a continual challenge, especially with the pantry’s multiple programs.
VanSchelven feels that there is a bit of a misconception about the Rockton/Roscoe area being perhaps a bit more affluent than it actually is. The pantry consistently serves 50 to 80 families weekly, and despite appearances, the need is there.
"I just think it seems to be the general opinion of people is that the Rockton and Roscoe area are in a different socioeconomic situation than say Beloit, South Beloit, Rockford or Loves Park. But they don’t realize that Rockton and Roscoe also have townships, so it’s a large area," said VanSchelven. "Also, there are assisted living units in both communities."
VanSchelven started the pantry in 1994 with the assistance of the Rev. Rod Johnson. VanSchelven was looking for a way to help in the community and Pastor Johnson mentioned that he had been approached by several families who could use help with groceries from time to time and that the establishment of a food bank would go a long way toward helping them. VanSchelven took the idea and turned it into an 18-year passion.
"The pastor and I thought about something that this area really needs and it came up that there were reports of people wandering into the church offices during business hours looking for food," VanSchelven said. "At the beginning we had about 12 Rockton and Roscoe churches that agreed to donate so we were able to get the pantry going in the old stone church."
To complement the services it already offers the community, the Rockton pantry began the backpack program in 2011 to help children who often went home over the weekends to a house without food. The Rockton Grade School and Stephen Mack Middle School have identified children whose families may be having difficulty providing groceries for the weekend, and each week backpacks are filled with basic supplies and dropped off at the schools.
The children are able to stop in the school office on their way home and pick up their backpack, then return the empty pack to school on the following Monday.
"The number of families in the backpack program has varied, but this is our third year doing it. The first year we had 36 families, on the second it jumped to 48, but this year we are back down to 32 families," said VanSchelven.
During Christmas, the pantry has approximately 30 local families and corporations that take on a needy family who can’t afford Christmas presents and they collect toys, clothes and food for them.
"For Thanksgiving we put together big food baskets that include a turkey," VanSchelven said. "People come out of the woodwork every year to help out and donate food, it’s incredible. The community has responded to that program tremendously since we started it and we have never been without."
Last Thanksgiving the pantry received a large food donation from an independent coffeehouse in Winnebago called Cuppa Java. The collection was part of the business’s eighth anniversary fundraiser. The donation was so large that it enabled the pantry to distribute 105 of its Thanksgiving baskets.
"Cuppa Java is a new donator, and they gave us a ton of food," said VanSchelven. "We really appreciated it. It may be the largest we’ve ever gotten from a business, and it’s a fairly small business, too."
VanSchelven says there are just too many people to thank for all the support, and he is afraid that he’d miss someone. But a lot of the consistent help he gets from area churches, schools, fire departments and the Rockton Lions Club is what helps make the giving possible.
"These are tough times, there are a lot of people out of work and they have kids that they can’t buy enough food for," said Jerry Swenson, president of the Rockton Lions Club. "During Christmas we collect boxes of food and gifts so they can have a Christmas; it’s just the right thing to do. Last year we did, I believe, 58 families. This year we had 81 families."
The Rockton Volunteer Firemen’s Association makes donations throughout the year as well, but it turns up their fall donations with its pancake breakfast.
"Most of our donations tend to be monetary donations," said Deputy Chief Cory Magnus. "We have our fall pancake breakfast, and all of our profit proceeds go to the pantry. During the holiday, people from the department collect some goods and send that over, too. It’s really important because it gives back to the community; that’s what we are here for."
If you find yourself mid-year with a bit of a personal surplus in your own pantry, there is a place in Rockton that gladly will take some of your overstock.